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  • Writer's pictureSusan Alloway

Ruach (Breath)

Breath. Wind goes in. Exhale. Wind vibrates out. Sound is born.

I have the word “ruach” tattoed on my arm. It’s an old Hebrew word that means “breath” or “wind,” and in scripture we translate it as “Spirit,” as in, “and the Spirit (ruach) of God hovered over the waters.” (Genesis 1:1)

The Old Testament story of creation’s birth is full of breath and wind and spirit. Let that wind vibrate through your vocal cords and you get sound, words, as in John 1:1 “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

It’s no wonder then, to me, that the first thing people encourage you to do when you’re in pain, physical or emotional pain, is breathe.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I went through the mandatory birthing classes where the old nurse teaches you how to breathe properly. “Now pant like a puppy dog,” Nurse Barnie said, aptly demonstrating for us with her tongue hanging out, making us feel both horribly foolish ourselves and embarrassed for her at the same time. Needless to say, I thought it was dumb. So, when my first child started clawing his way out, I held my breath, and then I panicked because my body had no release from the pain.

What you SHOULD do is breathe slowly, intentionally, in through your mouth, out through your nose. This simple act opens your rib cage, raises your shoulders, relaxes your core muscles, and then constricts everything back down gently, naturally squeezing the child down the birth canal and toward its “and-behold,-it-was-very-good” moment.

I discovered this through no intelligence of my own when I went into labor with my second child. Almost delivering her in the car, I didn’t have time for pain meds or epidurals; all there was time for was breath. And in those last couple minutes of blood and waters, that breath escaped through my vocal cords as a thundering ocean gone mad, a sound of power and destruction and creation that I think the ruach of God would be proud of. (I know I am.)

But breath isn’t just useful for women, and it isn’t only useful while giving birth. Breath connects us, all of us, to God at all times, and can be used intentionally to seek God out. They say that the name of God, Yaweh—which was written without the vowels—was actually just the sound of inhaling and exhaling: inhale (YH), exhale (WH). If that’s true, then no human being could ever exist without calling the name of God with their every breath.

So, while I might not have consciously prayed while I was giving birth, it gives me joy that God had “calling upon the name of the Lord” built into my very flesh. It took a lot of pain to get me to that particular breath, that particular sound, and I doubt that the noise I made sounded anything like a joyful one, but it was a noise unto the Lord nonetheless.

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About Jeff


I've always been a fish out of water (and I love fish). From being an artist in a sports family, to a Christian who leans into the mystery of God while still trained in a Word-centered mainline tradition, and now a person in a wheelchair amongst able-bodied hikers, my life has perpetually been outside the box (or bowl). 

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